Wednesday, December 17th, 2003

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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
At Home on the Waves
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

On December 10th, 2003, Wildlife Care Assistant Jeanette Gaines was approaching the waters of the Pacific Ocean with a very anxious bird in her hands. If viewed from a distance, the bird might have been mistaken for a medium-sized gull. The bird's shape was certainly gull-like, and his solid gray coloration may have appeared, at a glance, to match that of a first-year gull. But closer inspection of his beak would have helped clue an observer in to the bird's true identity. The mostly yellow bill was offset with areas of black patterning. The end of the upper bill was sharply hooked, indicating the bird's carnivorous habits. In addition, the bird's nares (nostrils) opened from a tube-like structure built into the top portion of the bill. The tube-like structure would have helped associate the bird with the Family Procellariidae, also known as "the tube noses". He was not a gull. He was a close relative of the shearwaters and petrels. He was a Northern Fulmar, and he was about to go home.

Although not a rare bird, the Northern Fulmar is a relatively rare sight from land. Individuals of this species are pelagic, spending nearly their entire lives at sea feeding on the fish, squid, crustaceans, and carrion that comprise the bulk of their diet. Fulmars are often seen following fishing vessels and feeding on the offal that they leave behind. They return to land to breed (on high exposed sea cliffs), but their true home lies on the waves.

fulmar beak

Northern fulmars have a tube-like structure on top of their beak. The tubes contain their nares (nasal openings) and are associated with a gland that helps remove excess salt from their bloodstream.

When a fulmar is found on land outside of the breeding season, it is usually a bird that is injured, ill, and/or badly debilitated. Such was the case in the fall of 1995, when dead and dying Northern Fulmars began showing up on Washington beaches in great numbers. All were physically sound (no injuries, diseases, or toxins), but all were suffering from starvation. It was a bit of a mystery, as the apparent food shortage seemed to be most heavily impacting just this species. It stood to reason that if fulmars were having difficulty finding food, then shearwaters, petrels and other species with similar feeding habits should have been impacted as well. No clear explanation for the event was ever discovered. PAWS received close to 40 fulmars during the 1995 beaching, and we suspected that we might receive more this year when we were informed of a similar die-off that was occurring along the California Coast.

In October, PAWS received word from a wildlife rehabilitation center in Los Angeles that they had admitted nearly 80 beached fulmars. As in the 1995 cases, all were starving, but showed no signs of injury, disease, or toxins.

releasing fulmar

Wildlife Care Assistant Jeanette Gaines releases the first of three fulmars.

In addition to the birds received at the L.A. center, there were dozens of others that had died on the beach. The reports of beached fulmars spread north, and birds began to show up on Oregon and then Washington beaches. On November 11th, 34 badly emaciated fulmars arrived at PAWS from the Ocean Shores area.

You can tell when there are fulmars at the PAWS Wildlife Center because they have a distinct, almost berry-like smell. The center was filled with it as the 34 Ocean Shores birds were given thorough examinations. The examinations revealed that they were emaciated and highly anemic. Several of the birds were beyond all hope, and the only assistance we could offer them was to end their suffering through humane euthanasia. Even those that were potential rehabilitation candidates had an enormous uphill battle ahead of them. Emaciated animals must be worked very slowly back on to a normal diet. It takes energy to run a digestive system, and an emaciated animal simply doesn't have any energy to spare. If they are given food that is too rich too quickly, their bodies will not be able to assimilate it. In addition, animals in such a debilitated state have severely depressed immune systems, and they are vulnerable to a variety of common pathogens. We expected a high attrition rate among the birds with which we chose to pursue treatment, and that is exactly what we experienced.

A month after the fulmars had been admitted, three birds remained. They were a far cry from the depressed, weak animals they had been at admission. They had each added 20% or more to their body weight, and they now floated in a large outdoor pool.

taking off fulmar

In a blur of motion, one of the three fulmars takes flight.

They occasionally squabbled over smelt that were tossed to them, or offered in a shallow dish at the pool's edge. They no longer reacted passively to being handled, instead attempting to put their hooked bills to good use on restraining hands. They made it clear that the only remaining thing that they needed from us was a ride to the ocean. We were happy to oblige.

The bird that Jeanette was carrying towards the water was the first to be released. As she placed him on the water's surface he quickly paddled a safe distance away while eyeing her warily. He looked around to find himself in a long, crescent-shaped bay. The bay provided enough protection that he would not have to fight against strong surf, but he only needed to round a nearby point and he would be headed for open ocean. Jeanette opened a second box and released the second fulmar into the bay. I did the honors with the third. Although there hadn't been any new fulmars appearing on the beaches in the few weeks leading up to their release, there was no way to know whether or not these birds would continue to have difficulty finding food. Earlier in the day all three birds had been fitted with federal bands so they can be identified should they run into trouble and be found on the beach again.

out to sea fulmar

The fulmars were last seen heading for open ocean.

As the fulmars took in their surroundings, the reality of their new situation hit them, and they realized that they now had both the strength and the space to put their wings to good use. The first bird that had been released took off, flew to the end of the bay, and landed just shy of the point. After he spent a few moments getting his bearings, he took flight again, rounding the point and finding only open water laid out before him. Meanwhile, his companions took a few circling flights around the bay, flying strongly despite their long respite from the activity. A second bird discovered the exit, and lost all interest in the bay. He flew out to sea, followed shortly thereafter by the third of his former cage mates.

It was an amazing experience to see three birds that had not long ago been at deaths door, embracing the second chance that had been given to them. A month earlier, when they had hauled themselves onto the beach in desperation, they had no way of knowing that help would be waiting. Even as they now flew out to sea, they still had no way of comprehending exactly what had happened to them. They had been given a gift, and they now repaid that gift a thousand times over simply by taking flight once more. As I watched the fulmars leave I wished them good luck and, more importantly, good fishing.

Wildlife Release tally: November 26th to December 9th, 2003

1 Wood Duck
3 Varied Thrushes
1 American Robin
1 Sharp-shinned Hawk
1 Fox Sparrow
1 Rock Pigeon
1 Eastern Gray Squirrel
1 Common Merganser
3 Northern Flying Squirrels
1 Golden-crowned Sparrow
1 Dark-eyed Junco
1 Western Gull
2 Virginia Opossums
1 Green-winged Teal
1 Steller's Jay
2 Glaucous-winged Gulls
1 European Starling

Wildlife Release tally: 2003
1,100 animals

All rights reserved. 2003 Progressive Animal Welfare Society